Ontario’s energy minister seems to thrive on adversity in cabinet’s toughest job

, Economic

Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli: “You do what you believe is right, and you live or die by it. I was minister of energy in last election, and the number of votes I got went up."

Bob Chiarelli, a career politician who compares himself to a Russian czar, has deftly navigated the trouble spots. So few expect, least of all Chiarelli, that the “pee” controversy that sprung up at Queen’s Park last week.

Hansard, the recorded record of the legislature, originally reported on May 4 that Chiarelli, responding to an electricity question from NDP leader Andrea Horwath, said, “When the leader gets up, it’s hard to focus on an answer when she takes Kenora in the north and she takes Toronto in the south and she pees all over the map on every issue that should possibly raise in a question.”

Chiarelli apologized but insists that he didn’t use the word “pee.” Indeed, Hansard later revised the quote to read, “she, she’s all over the map,” and his spokesman, Dan Moulton, said that, “I think he stumbled over his words. I don’t think that’s what he meant to say.”

Moulton brushed off New Democrat accusations of misogyny and insisted, “it’s over.”

But even if the flood of outrage over the remark slows to a trickle, it’s clear that Chiarelli, who next year will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first election victory, will likely continue to court controversy.

When Premier Kathleen Wynne named him energy minister, ‘I got 10 condolences for every congratulation.’

Chiarelli, 74, took over as energy minister in 2013 to clean up the mess after the Liberals cancelled two gas-fired power plants to win an election — which cost taxpayers more than $1 billion and led to criminal charges against senior government staffers.

He has survived, but not unscathed. Recently, the opposition Conservatives demanded the Liberals explain why they held a fundraiser, $7,500 a plate, for “a small group of senior executives to spend an informal evening with the ministers of energy and finance.”

The Auditor-General says Ontario overproduces electricity it sells at a loss. Ontario residential electricity prices rose again on May 1. Residential power customers in Toronto already paid double what they pay in Montreal. This week the Ottawa Citizen reported that Canada faces a trade claim for $475-million from a U.S. firm over Ontario’s 2011 cancellation of wind turbines in Lake Ontario. Police are also investigating possible deletion of documents in that case.

And in March Dennis Fife, mayor of North Stormont south of Ottawa, learned that Chiarelli approved 40 wind turbines next to his farm, after his council turned down $600,000 in compensation and rejected them. “We don’t need the power,” says Fife. “It’s a rural area with a nice landscape. We don’t want to see it dotted with wind turbines.”

Chiarelli seems to relish the controversy. He says when Premier Kathleen Wynne named him energy minister, “I got 10 condolences for every congratulation.” The minister, who contacted the National Post to tell his side in Ontario’s raging energy debate — and granted two lunch interviews for this story — compares himself to Czar Nicholas II, who pushed the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia: sometimes he needs to just get things done.

Eugenio and Antonia Chiarelli immigrated from Calabria and raised seven children above their grocery and dairy in Ottawa’s Little Italy. Roberto was the youngest.

“Bob brings a refreshing honesty about our policies from an independently-run grocery store,” says Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s former premier, now a consultant in Ottawa. “He never forgot where he came from.”

Chiarelli attended Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., on a hockey scholarship. “I was a penalty killer and a checker,” he says.  His on-ice performance foreshadowed his political style: he is a bit of an enforcer. He went to law school, then practiced law. In 1987 he won election as MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean.

Chiarelli later won as first mayor of amalgamated Ottawa, where he earned a reputation for bold action — and team work. Jan Harder was a rookie councillor elected as a fierce critic of Chiarelli.

“I was a navy-blue Conservative, not wanting amalgamation,” recalls Harder, an Ottawa councillor. “I learned a lot, and a lot with the help of Bob. Bob has always been a big-picture guy.”

But when Chiarelli championed light rail in Ottawa, voters booted him out.

Chiarelli got up off the ice; in 2010 he returned to the provincial legislature. As transportation minister in 2011-2012, Chiarelli won a transit victory over Rob Ford, then mayor of Toronto, that illustrates Chiarelli’s cunning at the long game.

He never forgot where he came from.

Ford cancelled Toronto’s light rail plan, and McGuinty and Ford shook hands on an all-underground transit plan. Chiarelli didn’t approve, but in an election year, he placated Ford. The Liberals won a minority in 2011.

Sources say Chiarelli then quietly invited Toronto transit chair Karen Stintz to breakfast and promised to support council if it restored light rail. In 2012 council overruled Ford on a resolution Chiarelli helped write, and Chiarelli said, “I have always respected the will of council.”

This coup proved Chiarelli’s readiness for cabinet’s toughest job: energy minister.

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An oil portrait of Sir Adam Beck, chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, 1905-1925, greets visitors in the lobby of Ontario’s energy ministry.

Dozens of small framed photos in the boardroom complete the story; the past 23 energy ministers have lasted on average 13 months.

“Energy is a very difficult and dangerous portfolio,” says Jim Hinds, an investment banker and former chair of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator. Chiarelli’s three-plus years in the job is a modern record of sorts.

Ontario loves to boast that it no longer burns coal for electricity. But the new mix of nuclear, hydro, wind and solar costs a lot, in part because Ontario under George Smitherman signed fat 20-year solar power deals.

“It was a stupid thing,” says Bill Eggertson, who heads the Canadian Association for Renewable Energy. Ontario buys electricity from solar panels on Eggertson’s Ottawa home for 80 cents/kWh, and resells it for, at most, 18 cents/kWh. “I shouldn’t be getting 80 cents. I would have started at 50 cents.”

Chiarelli changed gears. In March Ontario awarded contracts for 16 wind and solar projects through competitive bids, paying nine to 18 cents/kWh, and will begin this summer to take bids to buy double that amount of renewable power. Chiarelli relishes this role, as purveyor of clean power.

“When you look at price comparisons for Ohio, or Michigan or Nova Scotia or Saskatchewan or Alberta, they are all still burning dirty, cheap coal. And our prices, which are still competitive, are clean and coal-free. Yes, that puts pressure on prices, and that’s a social policy and an environmental policy that we choose to make.”

David Gonczol/Postmedia

Does Ontario need more generation? As wind turbines multiply, factories decamp. Ontario power consumption has dropped 15 per cent in a decade, which regulators attribute to lower demand, increased efficiency and house-mounted solar panels, which don’t count in consumption numbers. Today Ontario exports 10 times the power it did a decade ago, often at a loss. Why erect more wind turbines?

Chiarelli insists, “We do need to produce more electricity, because we are going to be taking nuclear units out.” He concedes that he awarded wind and solar contracts to companies who paid $7,500 for that “informal evening” with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in March. It’s all above-board, he says.

“There is no, ‘You fundraise and you get a contract.’ People who have made contributions to us have asked for things, and we’ve said absolutely no. And there are people who may have been successful.”

Chiarelli takes abuse on both sides of the energy debate. Eggertson serves on a panel studying Hydro Ottawa’s request for a $75 million transmission line. He says if Ontario mandated each new home to face south and put a solar panel on its roof, they wouldn’t need the line. Chiarelli is unmoved.

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